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Kansas Books

 

 

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Kansas: A Bicentennial History
Kenneth S. Davis
The States and The Nation Series
Norton & Co, 1976, 220 pages, some b&w photos

"Dear old Kansas." "Kansas is no mere geographical expression, but a 'state of mind,' a religion, and a philosophy in one." These quotes by, respectively a schoolgirl and Carl Becker can only make sense when you realize that, in the 1800's Kansas has a fascinating history of Populist agitation, more newspapers than any other state in the Union, and a cast of colorful characters who we have reduced to caricature. Did you realize that Carrie Nation, the woman who broke up the saloons was not a crazy loon, but someone protesting illegal business that the law was winking at? And on it goes.

But after WWI it all changed. Something died, and Kansas settled into a place where nothing happens, the "Elicipsed state," in a chapter title from a survey of the nation. Lunatics ranting on the radio, backward politics, and a relentless incompetence.

Told with love, but not uncritical love, this book is a joy to read.

West of Wichita: Settling the High Plains of Kansas, 1865-1890
Craig Miner
University Press of Kansas, 1986, 280 pages, b&w illustrations.

The author takes delight in shattering most of the romantic myths of western settlement. You know them well: the hordes of blue eyed, blondes who surged west, the robust locals who were self-sufficient and wanted just for the government to leave them alone, etc. The truth is at once more varied and more interesting. Western Kansas was settled by every ethnic group you can think of and crop agriculture was never self-sufficient there. Settlement was the first ecological disaster. Life was as tough as myth has it: accident, the weather, and most of all, disease. This is a vividly written book with much colorful, telling detail.

The Englishman in Kansas
T. H. Gladstone
1857 ed. printed 1971, University of Nebraska Press
328 pages.

Just days before the 1856 burning of Lawrence by pro-slavery people, Englishman T. H. Gladstone arrived in Kansas for an "on the scene" report. He paints vivid pictures of "border ruffians," frontier life, and the violence of slavery. Openly a partisan of abolition, Gladstone, gives the background to the "bleeding Kansas" controversy and the fight to control the elections to elect the representatives that will decide if Kansas will be free or a slave state.

Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction
Nell Irvin Painter
University Press of Kansas, 1976, 1986, 270 pages.

Out in the western part of Kansas there are at least two towns that are inhabited mostly by black people. They got there as a result of immigration from the south during Reconstruction. When it became apparent that freedom was not really coming to the blacks in the south, many decided to leave. With heartbreaking hardships and touching naiveté they took their lives in their hands and came north. Some, encouraged by Kansas history of abolitionist feeling, came to Kansas.

Unfortunately this isn't that well written a book. The author has few direct sources to work with, and seems driven to impose some theory on every event, thus he repeats himself often, and the story doesn't have the rich detail that you know the real event must of had. Still, worth reading.


Updated 9/11/04; posted 3/00; © 2004 John P. Nordin